Eros the Bittersweet

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Eros the Bittersweet is an odd, neat, duplicitous little book, written with double purposes for a double audience. One vein, much stronger in the early pages of the essay, is its generalizing bent: All lovers feel as Sappho felt. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina joins with Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Emily Dickinson to present erotic love in its most paradoxical context. This epic sweep of generality is coupled with meticulous analysis of individual texts as they survive in the original Greek. The essay is both scholarly and personal in tone, at times holding the reader at a proper academic distance, at others dropping an arm about his shoulders and whispering cozily in his ear. The author’s joy in paradox is so great and so apparent that the reader can sense its growth with each increment of paradox within the text; the more paradox, the merrier.

Eros the Bittersweet, significantly, has no numbered chapters, only coyly titled subdivisions, thirty-four in all, many accompanied by quotations from sources as diverse as Queen Victoria and Roland Barthes. In the preface, a character from Franz Kafka chases spinning tops for the sheer delight of the chase. The scholar, Carson assures us, is also engaged in a chase after spinning tops, and delights in the play of metaphor, while attempting to fix that movement in formal study.

The first movement of Carson’s essay, generalizing, yet closely linked to specific analysis of a single term, is an inspection of Sappho’s term glukupikron, or “bittersweet,” and the interplay of its meanings in poetic context and in its English renderings. In succeeding pages, Anna Karenina and Simone Weil, as well as a host of ancient and modern authors, are cited as pondering the paradoxical nature of desire. Eros is seen as “limb loosener,” tormentor of lovers and poets, qualified in terms of opposites polarized by the universal emotion of love-hate. Desire requires a three-part structure: lover, beloved, and obstruction. Examples of this “triangulation” (based in part on René Girard’s concept of “mimetic desire”) are drawn from meticulous analysis of Sappho’s verse and also from ancient cultural practices. Carson cites the example of harpagnos, stylized Cretan homosexual-rape courtships, where the seeming opposition by a family to a boy’s abduction was necessary for his desirability. Edges and boundaries of the self are felt only in desire, the outreach of self to other. The sweetness of desire is doubled by the bitterness of loss. The lover inevitably discovers that complete union of two individual selves is never possible, that two lovers can never dissolve into one. Permitting herself a pun, Carson suggests that, seeing his “hole” (lack, loss, wound), the lover sees his “whole.” The lover’s self-consciousness, born of Eros, is both aware of the superbeing which union with the beloved would produce and wounded by the impossibility of this union. Puns, like desire, increase awareness of edges. While erotic desire insists on the similarity and difference of two lovers, puns affirm the same for two words.

Carson’s essay proceeds from a consideration of erotic love and puns to the development of Greek literacy and its effect on the ancient lyric poets. While Sappho and Archilochus inherited the oral tradition of Greek epic poetry, the lyric poets were estranged from that past by the development of the Greek alphabet and written words. The traditional language, formulas, and rhythms of oral epic were used by the lyric poets, but with the self-consciousness of lovers suffering from desire. Concentration on the hard-edged written word divided the poet from the immediacy of the living world. The impact of this consciousness of division was particularly acute for the generation of Greek poets who first sustained its assault. Alphabetization, Carson says, is erotic, and it is no coincidence that capricious Eros was first sung by these Greek poets. Wind, wings, and breath bind the complex of Eros and language. Vowels are moving air; consonants give edges to words. The development of the Greek alphabet, with its consonants as well as vowels, is thus significantly different from earlier syllabaries or pictographic writing systems. Students of words, like lovers, are seekers, wooers, stretching out in desire for the other. Union results in annihilation. The triangulation of desire, the tactics of imagination, are directed at preventing union while keeping desire alive in a search for “something more” than perfect union; metaphor, for example, brings two objects close in comparison yet lets the edges, the incongruence of the two, show.

As Carson builds up her dynamic of triangulation, she introduces the concept of a “blind point” of desire, with two examples as illustration: One is the Velázquez painting commonly known as Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor). Carson’s interpretation of this complex painting is based, to a large extent, on Michel Foucault’s well-known study in The Order of Things (1973). Understanding of her argument would have been assisted greatly by a reproduction of the painting itself, for her point of interest is not the familiar, luminous foreground group of a flaxen-haired infanta surrounded by her attendants. Carson concentrates, rather, on a detail in the background, a...

(The entire section is 2189 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Choice. XXIV, December, 1986, p. 637.

Library Journal. CXI, November 15, 1986, p. 97.